Privatization hits Philly schools

News Analysis

On August 1, after months of controversy, protest and uncertainty, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission (SRC) voted to sign contracts with Edison Schools, Inc., and other for-profit Educational Management Organizations (EMOs). These contracts mean that 45 of the city’s 264 public schools will be privately managed this year.

Ten years ago, education activists here won a partial victory when a panel of outside experts appointed by Commonwealth Judge Doris Smith, in response to a 25-year-old lawsuit, reported that the School District needed an additional $350 million per year to provide ecucation comparable to surrounding suburban districts.

The Republican-dominated state legislature consistently refused to heed this recommendation, and instead responded by pursuing an agenda of their own. First, then-Governor Tom Ridge attempted to pass a “school choice” voucher law that would have provided public funds to private and parochial schools. On three different occasions, during the 1990s, this effort failed in the legislature, with many members of the Governor’s own party refusing to support it.

Upping the ante, the state legislature passed a series of laws empowering the Governor to take over school districts which were in “financial or educational distress,” terms that could easily be applied to most urban school systems, including Philadelphia’s.

In August of last year, Governor Ridge hired Edison Schools, Inc., to perform yet another “audit” of the school system in Pennsylvania’s largest city. The result of Edison’s “investigation,” for which the State paid $2.7 million, surprised no one: what the Philadelphia schools needed was private management, which Edison Schools, Inc. and its CEO, Christopher Whittle, were uniqely positioned to provide. That recommendation came in October of 2001.

The ten-month period between the appearance of the Edison Report calling for the privatization of the entire 210,000-student Philadelphia School District and last Thursday’s decision by the SRC have been marked by continuing controversy. Students, teachers, parents and their supporters have staged rallies, protests and sit-ins; they have spoken at countless meetings and hearings and won wide support in the community and in the local press. Their message has consistenly been: “adequate funding, not privatization, is what the public schools need.”

On the other hand, the new Governor, Mark Schweiker, (Tom Ridge having departed to become head of Homeland Security) and his supporters in the legislature have aggressively pursued their agenda: making backroom deals, removing the local School Board and replacing it with the SRC, and then pressuring this new body to privatize the School District. The terms of the contract agreements appear to show the pressures from both sides.

The irony of Edison, Inc. publicly stating that they would need an additional $1,500 per student to run their schools was missed by few, since that is the amount that broad based coalitions have been demanding for all schools for several years to bring parity with the suburban school districts. According to last week’s agreement, Edison will get over $800 extra per student, but not the $1,500 they sought.

The agreement signed last week, while definitely a set back for the Ridge/Schweiker administration, still has frightening possibilities. It gives for profit corporations extra money based on a strange formula which justifies the funds because their “low performing” schools are staffed largely with inexperienced teachers. But the new state money is being spread around all schools in the “low performance” category, not just the ones run by for profit firms. We have moved from one attempt to put public money in private hands through vouchers to a new “foot-in-the door” through this “let’s try anything but funding public eduation” approach.

The agreement reeks with payoffs and backroom deals, and there is little to inidicate that it will help the schools or the children. Our “public” schools will now be in competition with those run by private companies, while neither have the funds needed to guarantee success. The Philadelphians United to Support Public Schools (PUSPS) while proud of its successes over that past year in publicizing the issues, building support and blunting the privatization assault, continues to meet weely and is gearing up for intensified struggles ahead.

The Philadelphia Schoolworkers Club can be reached at damisbell@aol.com